The Fourth Estate

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In addition to being a voracious reader, I’m a news junkie. My original plan for “what I want to be when I grow up” was a Reporter. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Detroit, which in the 1970s and ’80s had two stellar independent newspapers – the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press – and from junior high school onward I wrote for each school newspaper, the Parish bulletin, the local penny saver, any print medium that would let me.

I won just enough awards to feel like I could ‘do this,’ and followed my favorite columnists like other kids followed sports stars… More than one Hallowe’en costume included a narrow spiral notebook and a fedora with a “press” card tucked into the band.

I mastered the basics of photography, editorial reviews, and layout far before the days of digital media; certain scents (darkroom chemicals, hot wax…) carry me back decades each time I smell them. Though I focused on print I also learned Radio and TV reporting just in case.

After college I did have some success as a reporter at small local papers, but I had not anticipated how (small-P) political newsrooms were. As a young reporter, I didn’t play the game very well, and bounced around as a stringer for longer than I want to recall.

Also, even though I knew going in that “journalist” was among the lowest-compensated professions (I made more money bar tending on weekends than I did working about 60 hours a week as a reporter) after a certain point I realized the best way to dig myself out from under the debt load I had accumulated was to work in restaurants and bars full time (yes, I made more money waiting tables than working in my college-degreed field…) Finally around age 30 I gave up story-chasing and got (as my Mom puts it) a real job as a technical writer. I haven’t filed a story since.

For a while my ultimate goal had been to serve as an AP or UPI Stringer: a foreign correspondent. I was ready to carry the strength and integrity of a Free Press with me to repressed societies and dictatorships around the world. To use my narrow spiral notebook and press card to shine a light into darkness, and be a voice for good. To bear witness.

This reminisce has a point, one that seems to be sharpening with each day’s news cycle. What I’m afraid is being forgotten is – just like fire fighters running into burning buildings – journalists put their lives on the line on a regular basis, and the job is getting more dangerous, not due to the usual suspects of wars and disasters but purposeful targeting.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think in 2020 the country with possibly the greatest need to journalistic strength and integrity would be the one I grew up in.

I’m closer to the end than the beginning these days, without the drive and determination (or physical ability, if we’re being frank) needed to jump into a jeep and roar toward the story. But I can still bear witness. So every day I read the morning paper and watch the evening news to bear witness: the courage of my colleagues; the voice of the stories themselves; and strength and integrity of a new generation, who only need an iPhone to by heard ’round the world.

I am proud of the journalists, bloggers, reporters, stringers and foreign correspondents who commit their lives to chase and publish the truth. Good reporting is just as important fighting fires, and there are a lot of fires – of all kinds – that need to be fought these days.

Swashbuckling Cats!

It started – as the best things do – with a friend being silly. It ended with a anthology of stories curated by Rhonda Parrish, including my first attempt at humor (or at least silly) writing: the short story Buccaneer’s Revenge.

I am a fan of Cats (the Musical… haven’t seen the movie but I am bracing myself to rent the DVD), have a decades-long subscription to Vanity Fair, and passing familiarity with what used to be known as B Grade movies before they were called “International Blockbusters.”

I took those three facts, put them in a blender, added as many animal puns as I could squeeze in, and hit “pulse.” Buccaneer’s was the result. I hope you enjoy it, as it shares pages with an awesome array of stories. Release date is May 26 right into the teeth of the pandemic, but Rhonda and Margaret (our stalwart publisher) are running a virtual launch party, which will be loads of fun!

Giftmas 2019

Ho Freakin’ Ho! It’s that time of year when Rhonda Parrish and her merry elves put on a fundraiser for the Edmonton Food Bank. This year’s goal is to raise $1,000, which will feed a lot of hungry people during a very cold time of year. To that end, Rhonda donates time and treasure; a lot of really nice people have put in raffle prizes; and several of us are sharing stories, recipes and other fun stuff. This year I get to share Friday the 13th with two superb writers and All Around Good Folk: Stephanie Loree and Laura VanArendonk Baugh. Please visit their blogs, and be sure to drop into all the sites from the 10th to the 15th.

Points to keep in mind:

  • Money is donated directly through Canada Helps, so people can trust their donations are going where we say they are — to help feed families
  • Donations are in Canadian dollars so some international donors (American and British, especially) can get a lot of bang for their buck
  • Each dollar raised equals 3 meals

Here are links to donate (PLEASE DONATE) and to the raffle (BUY COOL STUFF):

Okay got it? Good. Without further ado, here’s my Holiday Story.


At first Carol enjoyed her friends’ comments.  “Did you lose weight?  You look different.”  But then they changed.  “Are you feeling okay?  You look… pale.” 

By the Holiday block party, the comments had stopped all together.  Carol found herself in the kitchen of her own home, ignored by her neighbors and trying to convince herself she wasn’t hiding from their snubs.

She thought she understood, one morning, as she looked toward the window and saw her reflection waver in the thin cold light.  “I’m disappearing,” she whispered (when was the last time she’d raised her voice?) “but – why?”

In the kitchen, she sipped her morning decaf while making breakfast.  Their plates were ready (scrambled eggs, toast and coffee for Ron, freezer waffles for Ronny, Egg Beaters for Beth, who was on her fourth different diet that month) when her family blew by in a maelstrom of noise, backpacks and car keys, spurning her food with “I’m late no time!” “We’re hitting McDonald’s on the way” and one simple, surly grunt.

“They didn’t even say good-bye,” Carol mourned, scraping the plates off into the disposal. 

At Sunday dinner Carol found herself competing with two smartphones and the Packers game.  After Ron fell asleep on the coach (Seahawks-Vikings on the West Coast) Carol went to tuck her children in, only to encounter one locked door (Beth) and one video game (Ronny) so violent and noisy she backed out of his room, unseen and slightly afraid.

That night she had trouble seeing herself in the mirror as she brushed her hair. 

The day she was cleaning the den and noticed the vacuum cast a shadow but she didn’t, Carol realized she had to DO something.  She called her doctor’s office twice, but the receptionist only said “Hello?  Hello?” before hanging up, despite Carol’s response.  She went to church, but the priest never noticed her waiting politely in the front pew while he discussed Midnight Mass decorations with the ladies’ auxiliary. 

Carol went back to her clean, quiet home and looked around.  “Is this how ghosts are born?” she wondered.  “Not as spirits of the dead but simply the neglected?”

Well, not her.  Not at Christmas. It was her favorite holiday, even if every year the kids demanded more gifts she had to find.  Even if Ron never even thanked her for all her planning, shopping, decorating, cleaning and cooking to make the Holiday so special.

Even if – more and more – she couldn’t help but feel a little taken for granted.

Fine.  She would MAKE her family sit up and take notice of all she did for them, and then they’d have a wonderful Christmas with love and joy and laughter, just like when the children were small.

That afternoon before Ron got home Carol put her plan into action.  Through the sounds of game explosions and Snapchat giggling, she drifted through the ceiling into the attic (how long had she been able to do that, Carol wondered faintly) and wrapped her hands around the main router cord.  It kept slipping through her fingers but she finally grasped it firmly enough to give a good tug.  When the Wifi stopped Ronny and Beth would call her.  They would need her.  They would SEE her and appreciate her and she’d be back to normal. Christmas would be great.

With a faint blip the router cord disconnected.  There was sudden, blessed silence downstairs.  Sure enough… “MOM!!!!” Ronny yelled from his room.  “The Internet’s out!” 

Carol sighed contentedly as she drifted toward the stairs.  Then she heard her daughter.  “Mom doesn’t know anything,” Beth said, scorn layered into every word.  “We’re going to have to wait until Dad’s home.”

And Carol was gone.

Edits or Revisions?

A very large part of my Day Job involves writing and editing, often under very tight deadlines; I have been inculcated for decades with the understanding: there’s no such thing as deathless prose. Oh sure, there’s nice clean copy. A strong proposal. A compelling narrative. But very rarely is something so perfect as to not need even a tweak.

In the few small fictions I’ve had published, the editor has come back each time with a handful of suggestions; all but one of which I have agreed to*. My theory? This person is buying my words, and should get at least an opinion as to how they flow. Also sometimes I’ve been staring at a page so long I look right past obvious changes, and part of an editor’s job is to make the words work together as best they can.

I recently got a note back on a story I submitted saying it was short-listed (happy dance) but the editor wasn’t thrilled with the ending. She didn’t have any specific edits or revisions, it just left her going “meh” and was there something I could do?

Changing words or their flow is different than “your ending sucks, please fix it”; to me, one is basic editing (which I do a lot of) and the other is revising an entire story. I dove back in knowing I might have to make significant changes from Word One, and that was scary and a little sad…. but a really good exercise.

So what happened? I ended up adding a paragraph right in the middle that didn’t mean anything to the revisions but my Muse dropped right into my brain as I got to that part of the story. Then I added about 500 words and came up with a far better ending than I had in the original submission (if I do say so myself).

I also learned something along the way I think is going to be really important. I knew that I need to let stories percolate in the back of my mind before my Muse puts down the tequila and kicks out a decent idea. But apparently my “Done!” draft is only a final one, and I need to set it aside for a couple of days before picking it up for one more round.

This is hard to do. With the deadlines of my Day Job, I’m used to finishing, proofing and shipping projects out because there are more coming at me like jets landing O’Hare and I have GOT to clear the runways before a crash. Fiction has deadlines too (obviously) but ordinarily they are more forgiving…. especially if I learn to plan time for one more review. I will always proofread and do my own editing (and yes, the old “fool for a client” axiom applies to writers as well as lawyers) but I need to get a better feel for revising, in order to become a stronger fiction writer.

I have a rolling calendar for my Day Job that includes due dates, ship dates, etc. I think it’s time to create one for fiction, too.

*The only one I pushed back on was because I clearly “heard” the character’s voice saying the words one way and not the other

On the Road Again

I am headed for Parts North (and somewhat West) again this August to the 2019 “When Words Collide” writers’ convention, part of a larger driving tour I have mapped out.  The plan is to fly into Calgary then driving north to Edmonton, west to Jasper, south through the Ice Fields Parkway to Banff and Canmore, hitting “WWC” in Calgary for three days; then south to Glacier, Helena and Yellowstone before retracing my steps and flying from Calgary home to Chicago.

Yikes that’s ambitious.  But it gives me time to not only see some of the planet’s most beautiful scenery, I have found long drives to be conducive to thinking about stories.  It’s amazing the plot points my brain can hammer out alone in the car.

This will be helpful, as I need to hammer out a lot of plot points; it’s time to ramp up my summer writing.  I’m a massive procrastinator, and with the “WWC” deadline fast approaching (even though it’s only in my head… I have nothing due for the convention) it’s time to start typing away.

PS – the photo above is the (only) road within Denali National Park. I took it during a trip to Alaska some years back…. yes, it’s real. I don;’t have enough skill to use Photoshop.

The Fool and the Wise Men

(But first, a word from our sponsors….)

Every year, the luminous Rhonda Parrish organizes a fundraiser for the Edmonton (AB) Food Bank, and this year she tasked her band of merry elves to write an “Advent Calendar” of stories.  Readers are asked to enjoy the words and then donate if possible.  Even $1 makes a difference, as thanks to its connections within the community, $1 means the Food Bank can serve 3 meals. 

Rhonda has also built a Rafflecopter with an assortment of prizes and donation loot – everything from greeting cards to custom poetry to dice and magnets to editorial support. 

I will proofread up to 5,000 words of a short story, school paper, novel chapter, whatever you need if you donate and choose my gift.  

The goal this year is to raise $750, which means 2250 meals to hungry people this Winter.  Every dime goes directly to the Food Bank – this doesn’t funnel through anybody’s PayPal account or a Facebook link.   

Follow along each day – Rhonda is hosting donation links, updates and prizes at her web siteand has additional details regarding this very worthy cause, including access to the whole story calendar. 

The story right before mine can be found at   and from my story you can follow the trail to Julie Czerneda’s story, hosted on Rhonda’s blog: – please read the entire series, and if you enjoy it?  Kick a buck or two toward the Food Bank. 

NOTE: not all the stories are Holiday-themed.  Some of them are dark and gritty, some – like mine – are goofy little things.  But each one is given to you freely in the hopes you might give a little something.  


(and now, back to our story…)

Let’s get this settled up front.  I am a camel jockey.  My father was a camel jockey, and his father before him and his father before him, as far back as our family tells the tale. 

But just because I’m a camel jockey doesn’t mean I’m foolish.  Ignorant?  Sure – a man can’t know all there is to know.  I will also acknowledge “unlearned”; we are not a wealthy clan and I did not attend great Universities such as in Macedonia or Athens, of which tales are told. 

However, I know my figures enough to keep the financial records of our business, jockeying camels. Taxes must be paid, debts collected or settled, and I was not raised to wholly trust either the tax collector or the debt-caller, but to keep marks my own self.

I know my words – can read and write – for the same reason, so our business and our clan may thrive. My father taught me these things, as his father taught him, as I will teach my son in turn if ever I am blessed to have a son.

But don’t call me a fool.

“Oh, Fool,” the middle astrologer beckoned, calling me over from where I was settling Matu’s belly cinch.

These three were paying customers so I bit back my first (second… third…) reply and bared my teeth in what could reasonably be considered a smile.  “I will be there in a moment, Rishaya.

As I finished the knot and made sure the saddle pad sat correctly so Matu’s hide would not rub raw, my father’s voice was in my ears ‘The client rules the day, my son.  Their custom provides the food which fills our bellies.  Don’t argue over small things.’

I took a deep breath as I straightened, keeping my face neutral.  Don’t argue.  Small things. Smile through petty insults.  Part of the job.  Thanks, Abba

Apparently my face was not as neutral as I thought; the middle astrologer smirked as I approached. “I mean no offense, of course.  I am not as versed in your language as I might be.  After all, my companions and I are wise– “

(Not that wise, to insult the man who is preparing your food on this journey, I thought).

“-and I admit, we see most men as foolish, those who ignore the instruction of Zarathustra in the Heavens. However, it is required by the Avestato lead the foolish to Truth.”  He frowned.  “Perhaps ‘ignorant’ is a better word.  One who does not follow the Way.” his smirk returned “Or believes beasts have deeper understandings.”

‘The successful business man doesn’t have beliefs or opinions,’ my father used to say.  I kept my voice pleasant.  “We will be ready to leave quite soon, Rishaya.  Perhaps you would be so good as to alert your companions?”

Smirk still intact, the middle astrologer nodded and moved toward the large tent I had pitched the night before, where his companions still slept.  My own blankets were rolled up and stashed within Dakata’s load, along with as much of the gear as I could pack while clients occupied the rest.

I did not like the middle astrologer.  The first astrologer – the one with whom I had contracted to bring them safely to their destination – had a kind smile set deep within wrinkles and a long white beard. His raiment was modest, though the small olive wood chest he kept close to himself obviously held something of great value.  The third astrologer – the youngest – said very little, clear green eyes in his dark face always moving as he studied the clouds and the birds in the sky.  His clothing and headgear was wound layers of colorful fabrics and his satchel smelled of the earth, an odd balsam tang when I hoisted it up onto Zhara’s broad back.

But the middle astrologer?  He had neither modest raiment nor quiet mien, and expressed himself as quite the intellectual.  He had laughed, the first morning of our journey, when he came upon me speaking to Matu, discussing the roads we would take.

“Does your camel understand you?” he had asked, intending it a jest.

“Of course,” I had replied, “Matu is far wiser than I, on the subject of roads and traveling.” 

I did not explain further: that Matu at nearly 30 years of age was the oldest of our family’s camels, and had walked the length of the Parthian Empire more times than I had seasons on the earth.  That I was telling him he, Dakata and Zhara would be charged with bearing three men of importance who were paying well for the journey, and I expected them all to behave. 

That I would care for them through the journey, walking beside them by day and bringing them to safe camp each night; and in turn they would help guard our rest against any predators or bandits we might encounter on the way.

I did not explain any of that, or how camels are loyal and affectionate when properly raised.  I did not because the middle astrologer had launched into a discussion of – well, he had lost my understanding after the word “Animist” but I was confident he did not intend a compliment, so I finally tuned him out.  And he referred to me as “Fool” (including a smirking false apology) from that point onward.

To answer his question, no I didn’t believe Matu understood the words I said.  But when that camel was born, my father’s hands were the first Matu felt, my father’s voice the first sounds.  When I was born some years later, among my first sensations was a drop of camel’s milk from Matu’s dam across my tongue.  We were a partnership,the camels and my family; and Matu understood the tone of my words, if not their meaning.  I might be a businessman, but if such a thing existed, he was a business camel. 

However, the middle astrologer did not need my explanation to expand upon his current lecture.  That one loved to hear himself speak, never mind who was willing to listen.  Despite his snide words to me, he would have talked to the camels if no one else was around, and expected them to take notes from his speech.

It was how I learned they were astrologers – “Magi” as he called them, wise men traveling to meet with someone important.  “We don’t yet know who this person is,” he repeated around the fire that night as his companions nodded, “but surely he will be a mighty warrior for Ahura Mazdain the battle for the Cosmos.  We shall stand ready to guide, our wisdom freely given.  That is why I bring him sweet incense, to soothe his mind for the wars to come.”  The middle astrologer rustled his over-garment– a finely embroidered silk – and settled himself into pompous recline, holding his goblet out for refill.

He did not so much as look at me when I refilled it.  Instead he gestured to the comet that stood low in the night sky, the comet they measured every night, carefully marking its path in the sand and then orienting to follow its line in the morning. 

I had been tempted more than once in the days we’d been traveling to erase their lines and draw my own after they retired to their tent, as I banked the fire at night.  Their confusion over a different direction would amuse me, but I knew they would only lengthen the journey; and by this time I was quite ready for it to be over.

‘The business man completes his service and his tasks, on time and as agreed. It keeps his name clean and well thought-of when additional opportunities arise.’ 

I sighed.  My father had led many travelers over the years, covering the great spice roads and dealing with all manner of scoundrels, as well as honest clients.  With his common sense to guide me I could handle three Zoroastrian astrologers for one night more. 

Though over two weeks long, it had been an easy journey.  The weather had been cool, with afternoon rains to keep the dust down and fill the cisterns at which we had stopped in our travels.  The camels remained sound and ample provisions remained for the journey home. 

I would be traveling home alone.  The astrologers had been invited to the great palace of Judea, to visit with Herod and report on finding this warrior king.  We had stopped there a few nights before, and – though I was not privy to their audience with Herod and his advisors – the astrologers had chattered about it along the road the next day like magpies on a branch.  Herod had been unaware, they marveled, that a king had been born within his demesnes.  He invited them to return after they had found this king, tell him who it was, so Herod could properly pay homage in turn.

My experience with rulers was admittedly limited, but I thought the whole encounter odd.  Rulers don’t pay homage – they require it.  The middle astrologer was busy expounding at length about how they would become important advisors to Herod, as well as this new warrior king who might very well be the incarnation of Ahura Mazdahimself; and therefore signal the dawn of the next World Age.  It all sounded…

The prudent businessman keeps close counsel, and does not share opinions that might conflict with proper payment.’  I listened to my father’s voice and urged the camels along the dusty lane leading into the small village, stopping finally before the modest house over which the comet had centered itself in the sky.  The clients were delivered and I had kept my mouth shut. My job was complete. 

It was time to go home.

From this modest village of Bethlehem to my family’s own holding at edge of our great city of Qumis, the return trip would take the camels and me only perhaps ten days, as we would be walking toward beloved land.  However, courtesy required of me one thing before I turned the camels’ noses East.  The blessing of clean water was sacred to my people, who trod the deserts and high ranges and survived off its lands.  I pulled a small flask of tanned camel hide from inside my shirt and decanted a portion of water from the saddlebags, then stepped inside the house, stopping as my eyes adjusted from brightness to not.

The astrologers had gathered to kneel around a girl who stared at them, eyes wide, as she held a baby to her breast.  A man about my age stood a little to the side and stared as well, clutching three items in his arms.  I recognized the olive wood box the first astrologer had carried, and guessed the other two wrapped items were the sweet incense and whatever the youngest astrologer had carried as gift.  The middle astrologer was saying something about stars and portents when I slipped my small leather flask into the man’s hand with a nod.

As I turned to leave there was a happy shriek and loud giggle, and I looked over to meet the joyous, bright blue eyes of the baby boy.  Smiling back, I walked out, closing the well-fitted door behind me and shutting out the middle astrologer’s voice at last.

I was untying Zhara’s nose rope when the door opened and the man stepped out, no longer juggling the packages.  “Friend?” He called, and when I paused held out a scarred hand.  I grasped his hand in mine – noting ropes of muscle in his arm from labor more stringent than reading the stars – and we exchanged greetings of peace.

“It sounds as if you’ve come a long way,” he said.  “I don’t understand the direction my life has taken, but I am grateful you guided these men to us.  Their gold will pay my taxes here, then help us home to Nazareth.  Their frankincense and myrrh will help support my son’s education, as he grows.”

He held Zhara’s and Dakata’s ropes as I swung up onto Matu’s back, then handed them up and patted my camel’s side next to my stirrup.  A sudden grin took years from his face as he continued “But your gift, my friend, I will keep for my wife and myself.  Perhaps in a time soon we will have a moment’s peace in which to enjoy it.”

It was an odd statement, but I was off for home and not willing to tarry and inquire why he would treasure a small skin of water.  As I set off through the dust he spoke out once again.

“For that flask of yours holds a truly most excellent wine.”

Something Familiar

I follow various folks on Twitter including famous and semi-famous writers, celebrities and other public people, all of whom have far more than (checks the bird) my 60 followers.

  • Sometimes I retweet something they’ve said.
  • Sometimes I even reply directly to them.
  • Once in a truly rare while, the person replies back, or at least presses the little heart button that means they like my comment.

And here’s where things get tricky.

I have family, friends, pets, colleagues and all sorts of other people whose feelings of me range from “love” (the dog and on good days the Dearly Beloved) to “like” (most people in my circle) to “tolerate because you feed me and have a nice warm tummy to curl up on” (that would be the cat).  By observation, I am a reasonable normal, grounded individual.

But when someone more famous than me responds – even by so little as clicking “like” on a Twitter comment – boy, it’s flattering and I want it to happen again.

The temptation is huge – try to come up with an even wittier response to send them, or tag them in on a conversation I think they’d be interested?  If they respond or like that, well, now we’re friends!

And that’s where obsession can creep in.

I started thinking of this when one of the awesome folks I follow tweeted a link to an article about her equally awesome husband, well-known in the SF/F Industry, who is (hopefully) going to be nominated for SFWA “Fan of the Year.”  He’s done a ton of great things over the years and won other accolades but is deserving of this honor.  I hope he is nominated, and I hope he wins.

But as I went to reply to her tweet with… something hopefully witty yet sincere and that she’d certainly wish to respond to and then we could have an entire conversation…. my brain clicked on.

This lady who has never met me (odds are supremely good never will) doesn’t need me jumping in to share her pride in her spouse; her joy in his accomplishments; their happy day.

As a matter of fact, there’s a good chance my jumping in with something I thought was witty but only made to half-witty would reduce her pride, joy and happiness.

Her happiness is not mine and I shouldn’t try to seize it.

But since she’s responded to me once or twice, even carried on a brief direct message conversation once, I feel like I know her.

I was starting to feel like I have the right.  That’s a trap.

As noted above, I have my own family, friends, etc. etc. and boy, am I lucky to have them: with and through them I can generate my own pride, joy and happiness.  There are a lot of people who don’t have this, and I think this is where a lot of obsession lives.  In trying to hitch onto others’ happiness; or the converse, feeding from another’s misery to make ourselves feel better by comparison.

It’s time for me to walk softly and carry a very big stick, ready to use on myself if I ever get too caught up in chasing approval from people more famous than me.  It’s not good for me, or for them, or society in general.



This Sunday is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.  World War One holds special significance for me, as you will read below.

(side note: if you have not yet seen Wonder Woman, it is a surprisingly good war movie.  The Western Front scenes alone make it worth the time to watch.)

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  

When the bombs finally stopped.

Armistice Day.           Veterans Day.            Remembrance Day.

It started as a recollection of the cessation of hostilities in Europe during World War One.

Although the day has evolved over the years to remember all the War Dead, it is worthwhile to pause and contemplate its origins.

To set the stage, in the various wars since 2001 about 7,000 U.S. service members have been killed to date; each a horrific loss to their families, their communities, and their country.  They are remembered, and they are mourned.

The Battle of the Somme, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of The Great War, produced more than a million casualties, with  British forces suffering over 60,000 casualties in just one day.

These are impossible numbers.

My grandfather was hit by Mustard Gas, and spent months recuperating in a hospital in France. He was lucky. His older brother, my great-uncle Donald, is buried in Belgium near Ypres; his pieced-together regiment found the “End of the World” at the infamous Battle of Mont Sorrel.

It’s not just an old family story. It’s also an ending of further generations. The children never born that would have been my aunts and uncles. Cousins never met. Nieces and nephews to cherish… not there. Multiplied by impossible numbers.

Each November 11 I think of those who fought. I think of young, young men in the mud and the filth and the fear of those trenches; or at Gallipoli, at Caporetto, at Ypres and Canal du Nord, firing blindly at other young, young men now lying quiet beneath fields and forests. Of those who lay unmarked and still unknown; of the ones recognized with stones growing mossy and worn, soon to be unreadable.

I think of doctors and nurses struggling to heal the broken and bleeding in field tents awash in mud.  Working by torch- and candle light without antibiotics.  Without suture thread.  Without sufficient medicines, heat or water.  Without anesthesia or antiseptic beyond the raw alcohol that was poured half into the wound and half into the solider. Without CT scans, MRIs, or Xrays, or anything but a guess at whether the bleeding went on inside as well as out.

Below is a chart I pulled down from a historic website:

Country Men mobilised Killed Wounded Missing Total casualties casualties in % of men mobilised
Russia 12 million 1.7mill 4.9mill 2.5mill 9.15mill 76.3
France 8.4 mill 1.3mill 4.2mill 537,000 6.1mill 73.3
British Empire 8.9mill 908,000 2mill 191,000 3.1mill 35.8
Italy 5.5mill 650,000 947,000 600,000 2.1mill 39
Romania 750,000 335,000 120,000 80,000 535,000 71
Serbia 700,000 45,000 133,000 153,000 331,000 47
Belgium 267,000 13,800 45,000 34,500 93,000 35
Greece 230,000 5000 21,000 1000 27,000 12
Portugal 100,000 7222 13,700 12,000 33,000 33
Germany 11million 1.7million 4.2million 1.1million 7.1million 65
Austria 7.8million 1.2million 3.6million 2.2million 7 million 90
Turkey 2.8million 325,000 400,000 250,000 975,000 34
Bulgaria 1.2million 87,000 152,000 27,000 266,000 22
Grand Total 61.3 million 8.35mill 20million 7.7mill 37million 57%

My Canadian forebears are represented in the British Empire numbers above.  The U.S. sent 4.3 million soldiers, of which 126,000 were killed, 234,000 were wounded, and 4,500 remain unknown.

Civilian casualties aren’t represented above, and these battles were fought through peoples’ homes, their fields and farms. Nor do the numbers reflect casualties that resulted post-ceasefire, when shattered remnants of communities had to feed and clothe themselves in the brutal years that followed as the countryside and its people tried to recover without husbands, fathers and sons to work in the still-agrarian society.

If a family was lucky and Jean-Luc came marching home again, more than half the time he came home crippled. Or blind. Or insane.

One last piece of information to mull.

France – through whose countryside coiled the famous “Western Front”– got hit with approximately 1.5 BILLION mortar shells over the course of the War. Unexploded ordnance still shows up nearly every day, much of it dangerously active. Mustard gas was a surprisingly stable mix and even at 100 years old, a canister that breaks is lethal.

There are teams of professionals dedicated to combing the countryside to collect what the French call “The Iron Harvest”.  These teams bring in between 50,000 and 75,000 tons annually (at that rate, they’ll have enough work to keep them busy for the next 500 years.)

On any given walkabout, one can find old rifles, munitions, shells, grenades, and human remains.

With 7.7 million soldiers still listed as missing and unknown they are still finding a lot of bodies.

Poppies for Remembrance

Lieutenant-Colonel Jon McCrae, a Canadian physician, wrote the poem below to commemorate a friend who fell at the second battle of Ypres. It was published and quickly adopted as a remembrance. Paper poppies became a way to raise money to support wounded soldiers, who would make them in the military hospitals as a way to pass the time. They used to be sold on every street corner in early November – as a child I remember seeing elderly women with small metal collection cans and fists full of red, and how my Mom or my Grandmother would make a point to buy one and tie it around a button on my coat for the day. I rarely see them any more, but when I do I buy as many as I can.

I urge you – if this weekend on your errands you happen to see someone selling them, spend a dollar to remember the Riley boys, and Dr. McRae’s colleague, and your own families and friends: gone but never forgotten.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch, be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.


Planning versus Pantsing

I had the chance to chat some weeks back with the sublime and wonderful S.G. Wong (who you’ve GOT to read… she’s over at and please check her out).  She was kind enough to sketch out her writing process, which involves planning, outlines and careful plotting of the story arc well ahead of putting actual words down on paper.

She then asked about my writing process.  My stumbling newbie answer was “totally by the seat of my pants” which is true – I often sit down at my keyboard and start typing with absolutely no idea what’s going to come out or in what direction the story will move.

When this works, it’s like I am transcribing a tale as it unrolls behind my eyes… the words flow like water and I write chapters of really good stuff.

When this doesn’t work, of course, I’m sort of stuck.  I will read and re-read the same opening paragraphs, trying to get the words rolling.  I’m currently stuck within a short story that started out en fuego – the first two paragraphs popped into my brain and I was off to the races.  But five pages in and I have no idea where to go next.  A great opening and then… *crickets*

Sometimes when this happens I keep typing, almost randomly.  I’ve broken through a few story barriers this way, and once I get words down they are usually fixable; rarely have I had to throw everything out and start again.  My background as a newspaper reporter taught me to keep typing until I had something ready by the deadline, and my Day Job for the last 22 years has similar deadline-driven requirements.

But it’s not professional, is it?  I mean, surely I can concoct an outline now and then?

Actually, I don’t think I can.  Oh, I still remember Sophomore English, with its outlining and its thesis-building (I still see the chalkboard with “Introduction.  Thesis Statement.  Three Supporting Points.  Restatement of Thesis.  Conclusion.” in my nightmares….)  But my brain simply doesn’t work that way; I’d write out the entire essay and drive the teacher nuts by handing it as “final” when the class was supposed to be working on first draft outlines.  So long as I paid attention to where my thoughts were going, I could arrive safely.

I also once dictated off the top of my head a final paper for a college course over the phone when a buddy in the Engineering College blew a mental tire trying to write about Hemingway.  Come to think of it,  I ghost-took ENG 101 and 102 a half-dozen times, as the only Liberal Arts major among my group of friends.

So – a technical response for my Day Job?  I can almost write those in my sleep by now.  But in fiction, I’m learning all over again that I have to pay attention.  Pay attention to where my protagonist or antagonist is headed, so I can type them out a path.   Pay attention to internal logic, and whether the story arc is a smooth bend or a nasty switchback.

I also have to explain things that don’t exist outside the hamster cage that is my brain, and I’m learning that writing all this out into a cohesive story is a lot more difficult than any technical proposal.

I am also learning there is no correct way to write – just because my narrative lurches like that hamster is hopping across a pond full of lily pads doesn’t mean I won’t cross safely (though I might torture a metaphor until it squeaks).

I can remain in awe of S.G. Wong’s disciplined approach – of all the writers who know every single plot point before they even begin the story – but us pantsers can get the job done, too.

It’s not better, it’s not (okay, it might be a little….) worse – it’s just different.  And if it works for you, it’s the best way.